At a time when Indian cities are under a partial lockdown with at least 276 individuals testing positive for COVID-19 and 4 deaths, the government and health agencies are trying their best to stop the virus from spreading further.
From health tracking apps to monitoring and analysing people’s movements, governments across the world have deployed a variety of technological tools, in their bid to stay ahead of (as well as flatten) the curve.
It was Bluedot, a little known Canada-based tech company, that was among the first to anticipate the epidemic proportions of the virus emerging in China.
The company says it combines “public health and medical expertise with advanced data analytics” to track and contextualise infectious diseases.
Since the outbreak in January, policymakers are increasingly looking at technology for identifying, tracking as well as fighting the onslaught of the virus that has claimed over 10,000 lives globally.
How is India doing on the technological front to prevent the spread as well as to provide healthcare workers, authorities and the public with the assistance and information they need?
Despite the government’s Digital India program and a nationwide address to the country by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is limited information or initiatives nationally with regards to deployment of technology.
Moreover, what are other nations doing and what India can adopt from their example in terms of effectiveness, privacy and surveillance implications of in monitoring citizens and using sensitive health data, and public-private collaboration?
Health Tracking Apps
China has undertaken a mass monitoring programme of citizens through an app that assigns a colour code to people - green, yellow or red - each corresponding to the health status of those being monitored.
The app, Alipay Health Code - developed by the government in collaboration with e-commerce giant Alibaba, also determines if an individual should be quarantined or allowed into public spaces.
This has raised serious surveillance fears as a New York Times investigation has also analysed the app’s code to find that it also shares data with the police.
Moreover, there exists a possibility of surveillance creep where the technology outlives the purpose for which it was designed.
In India, the Kerala state government has worked closely with startups to launch apps that help in curbing panic and getting essential information across to the people. QKopy, a Calicut based startup, provided its platform for the government to launch GoK – Direct Kerala.
“There is a deluge of information on coronavirus out there and people are often uncertain about what information to accept. Our app allows the government to broadcast authentic information to the public. Since its launch on 13 March, our app has been downloaded by more than 2 lakh people,” said Rajiv Surendran.
The app, available on Android and iOS, also allows the government to disseminate district-wise information and immediate updates through the platform. “The information is available through text and diagrams and tells users about number of people in quarantine, affected areas and the medical facilities available in their cities,” Surendran told The Quint.
Unlike Singapore, India does not have an official dashboard which provides analysed data in a simplified format. The dashboards that are available have been developed by private companies and startups like Kiprosh.
“With an aim to reduce panic and rumors about the affected cases,” Kiprosh has developed the dashboard of the Corona Virus outbreak in India, reads a message on its website says.
“We are aggregating data from MoHFW Government website and multiple sources. We then re-verify and organize the data in this dashboard,” the dashboard specifies.
Atul Rai, CEO of Staqu, which builds AI-driven analytics and security products, said there is a lack of real data around COVID-19 within India to produce meaningful correlations.
“The problem in India is not the holistic data but as of now we only have 150 cases so far. So that data is very minimalistic in terms of COVID-19,” Rai told The Quint, adding “But if you talk about the global powers like China and Italy, lot of correlation already researchers are doing.”
Rai adds that there are two parameters here – intrinsic parameters and extrinsic parameters. While intrinsic parameters relates to the body of the affected person, extrinsic parameters are other variables like temperature and humidity, location.
According to Rai, “those two have to be calibrated so that you can use it and of course AI will play on top of these two parameters to extract the relationship between the disease and the other environmental parameters. AI could play a very big role in this.”
Smartphone & Movement Tracking
Several countries have already adopted and are in the process of adopting location tracking through smartphones to monitor the movement of people as well as to keep a watch on those who have been infected or are suspected to have been infected.
While Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have used location tracking with considerable success, Israel government has approved the monitoring of mobile phones of those confirmed or suspected.
Yash Kadakia, founder of Security Bridge, a Mumbai-based cybersecurity company, said telecom data can be useful but can’t escape the privacy cost of such a move. “South Korea did something interesting where they used telecom signals to backtrack where infected people have been over the last 10-15 days. But, obviously that has huge privacy implications,” Kadakia told The Quint.
“On the airport front there is a tremendous amount of data with the government. This could be a huge area where analytics could play a role in linking people and places but it is hard to comment without knowing what is actually being done,” he added.
The United States government, meanwhile, is in talks with the private sector, including Google and Facebook, about how they can glean location data which can help in analysing trends in the movement of people.
While, this data can prove to be useful, fears about a wholesale invasion of privacy are not unfounded. Health and location data are highly sensitive personal data. There is a real possibility of spying, data abuse a host of other personal data being swept up.
President Donald Trump, on 14 March, had announced that the government is moving to relax federal rules in order to make it easier for doctors to provide medical care to individuals remotely. Telemedicine, using video softwares such as Skype, has obvious benefits in reducing the burden on brick-and-mortal hospitals as well as provide care to those are in isolation.
There has been no specific announcements regarding telemedicine in India as yet. India has limited healthcare providers, only 62 testing facilities across the country and frontline health workers face the risk of contracting the virus.
Rai points out that medicinal research is an area which has tremendous application for AI analytics. “It can minimise human trials and provided better targeted insights,” Rai said, adding that while China and Europe have started releasing a lot of data gathered by them, they are limited to specific geographical areas with temperatures, humidity and other parameters.
Rai’s company Staqu has developed a thermal camera which claims to provide high accuracy in identifying people with high body temperatures without involving any human intervention.
“Our technology removes the human intervention in early stages of detection; through heat wave analysis and more, the technology helps in proactively taking preventive efforts to reduce the risk of the spreading the virus.” Rai told The Quint.